Faisalabad: For the poor in Pakistan, justice is hard to obtain. For a young woman scarred by the sex trade, it is even harder.
Zunaira Muhammad, 20, says she was trafficked back and forth between Pakistan and United Arab Emirates for four years, sold for sex from a high-rise flat in Dubai by a gang from Faisalabad who duped her into thinking she would work in a beauty shop to finance her studies as a software engineer.
Her story of violence and crushed dreams reached Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose office requested an investigation last April, and the Islamabad High Court ordered the arrest of the ringleaders.
But nine months later the gang is still operating with impunity while Zunaira, barely able to stand because of the beatings she said the traffickers gave her, remains in hiding.
The police investigation has stalled, with the detective questioning Zunaira`s morals and saying she has to provide him with clues to enable him to arrest the traffickers, and her lawyer has abandoned her in face of threats and intimidation.
Zunaira is desperate. "Is anyone there who could help me and my poor family so we could come out from this fire?” she said in an interview from her hiding place outside the industrial city of Faisalabad.
She is in pain from beatings and bullets - the gangsters shot her in the legs when she escaped in March 2013. She said she wants to resume her academic studies but is isolated and alone.
ABANDONED THE CASE
Zulfiqar Bhutta, the lawyer who represented Zunaira until the first half of 2014, said he abandoned the case because a gang threatened him with “dire consequences”.
He reported the threats to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Pakistani agency responsible for human trafficking and charged with looking into Zunaira’s case, but was refused protection, he said.
After Bhutta dropped out Ayesha Ashfaq, an alleged ringleader who Zunaira said recruited her as a housemaid at age 15 after promising she would pay for her schooling, won bail on Sept. 9, 2014, at Lahore High Court, arguing that Zunaira had travelled voluntarily to Dubai.
Zunaira has also lost the support of Sonia Naaz, a social activist who worked with victims of sexual violence and sheltered her for several months after her escape.
Zunaira said she suspects the gang has bribed or intimidated Naaz because she recently closed her non-profit agency and telephoned Qammar Sajjad Ashraf, Zunaira’s elder sister, to convey a threat. Naaz warned of serious consequences if the family failed to withdraw legal charges against Ayesha and accept a settlement, she said. They have refused.
Naaz declined to discuss the case with this reporter. She said she had closed her non-profit for lack of funds.
Ayesha Ashfaq did not respond to requests for comment. Her lawyer Abdul Basit said he had done his job in winning bail for his client by successfully challenging Zunaira`s credibility.
Yet Basit displayed some unease over whether justice was being served.
His client’s ‘beauty parlor’ network merits thorough investigation, he said, because many women from the Punjab are trafficked on the pretext of working in the beauty business. Also, Zunaira`s family is so poor, she cannot get fair legal representation, he said.
SIX RAIDS, NO ARRESTS
As for the police investigation, FIA Sub Inspector Ajmal Hussain said he had conducted six raids to capture Ayesha`s husband Ashfaq Khushi Mohammad, but each time he managed to escape. If he is to try again, Zunaira as the complainant has the responsibility to provide more clues, he said in an interview.
Attempts to prevent Ashfaq fleeing the country have also failed. Hussain said the FIA’s immigration department rejected as inappropriate a request to put his name on the Export Control List. He gave no further explanation.
Hussain also questioned Zunaira’s story, although an Intelligence Bureau report requested by the prime minister`s office had validated the facts in the case. How could she have been forced 28 times to travel to Dubai, he said? Why did she travel at least four times with her father and a sister? What does it say about her moral character?
Zunaira in her FIA statement said that Ayesha Ashfaq was constantly at her side. Terrified by the gang, she said she hid everything from her family and that her aged father had no idea of the true nature of her business until she placed a furtive call to her brother-in-law and was rescued.
That was almost two years ago, yet Zunaira is still living in fear. "It is not understandable to me from where or how I can begin to make a fresh start to my life," she said.